The March of Intellect

Heath, The March of Intellect 3

While searching through the archives for nineteenth-century satirical prints, I stumbled upon this fantastic image produced by Robert Seymour. It’s a satire against corruption, depicting an giant automaton that represents the London University (later University College London, my alma mater!), sweeping aside corrupt lawyers, greedy clerics and the disappointing crown. Part of a longer series entitled The March of Intellect, or the March of the Mind (done by William Heath, largely satirizing the notion of rationalist progress), this particular caricature points to the radical founding of the London University in 1826, the first institution in England to provide education to anyone regardless of race, sex, class or religion (including Jews, Catholics and non-Anglicans). This was considered radical educational reform at a time when membership in the Church of England and a considerable sum of money were required for entry into Oxford or Cambridge.

The idea of the university was inspired by the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, who promoted wider access to higher education (and Bentham’s surreal Auto-Icon now sits in the South Cloisters of the main university building). Founded by the Whig politician and reformer, Henry Brougham, the London University was also later associated with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (wittily nicknamed the Steam Intellect Society by Thomas Love Peacock), which promoted the expansion of education to all classes. By using widely-distributed cheap publications (thin pamphlets on various scientific subjects or practical matters), the SDUK ‘offered education self-help to the masses in the years before universal schooling’. The Society also had a Library of Useful Knowledge, a Library of Entertaining Knowledge, and the widely popular Penny Magazine. Though attacked by Tories and those associated with the Church, and satirized by caricaturists (as in the image above), both the London University and the SDUK opened up higher education and contributed to the nineteenth-century reforms to which we are all indebted. Three cheers for the March of Intellect!


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